Call it a Damascus moment. Call it an epiphany. Whatever it was, it happened on my road trip home this past weekend.
I needed to go home. For one, it had been far too long since I had seen my family. And, for another, I needed to feel that wholeness of the place I come from, to see those flat lands, to hear the cattle, to look off into the distance and see nothing but fields for miles, to remember who I was raised to be. I just needed the change of pace from the hustle and bustle. I needed an escape.
I found it. I found it somewhere on the road between the city and the country.
Earlier in the week, I recalled a Sara Groves song I had once loved, "I Saw What I Saw." Without much thought, I downloaded it onto my iPhone and went about my day. It wasn't until I was on I-40 and the song started to play over my speakers, that it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a song I knew well—in fact, it was one I had once quoted in a speech I gave.
For those who are unfamiliar, you can watch the video below. Or, you can read some of the lyrics here:
"Something on the road, cut me to the soul;
Your pain has changed me,
your dream inspires,
your face a memory,
your hope a fire,
your courage asks me what I'm afraid of,
and what I know of love"
This was a song that had once been one of my favorites, because it had described my heart. When I first heard the song, I identified myself as one who was merciful, kind, empathetic, generous, tenderhearted, and full of fire. I could just as easily burn for someone else's dreams and successes as I could my own, just as I could lament with those who were hurting. This song had always served as an overflow of what I knew lived inside of me.
But, on my drive home, it brought me to tears. It made me breakdown, simply because that was not who I had allowed myself to become.
No, I didn't stop caring, stop empathizing with people, or stop giving. Those things are still very much a part of me and always will be. The change was simple. It was not a change of heart or a change of action; instead, it was a change in the way I perceived myself and the reasons why.
As I always have, I give, I feel deeply, I compromise, I trust, I bend, I listen, I empathize. Yet, the world has taught me to see this as something other than a beautiful part of my soul. Over time, those I had let in had taken advantage, used, and hurt. I remember each of these hurts, each of these times my trust was broken and my kindness exploited, and I remember, each time in a most stubborn fashion, rising again and asserting that I would not harden my heart. I remained tenderhearted, but I stopped letting it come naturally, stopped letting it be a thriving part of my identity. It became somewhat of a burden, a responsibility, that I donned, determined to continue being who I was in a world that didn't want it or respect it. I continued with kindness, but often it was forced, as it was something I grew to resent about myself.
Kindness, mercy, and being generous were considered offenses worthy of resenting, because that's what everyone else did. That was their assessment. It was how they viewed it. What I had always defined as beautiful had been defined for me (and with my permission by not disputing it, and later by accepting it as my own definition) as naivety, weakness, and a propensity to make poor decisions when it comes to trust.
This was perpetuated by the fact that my traits had come to mean different things to different people. While there were many wonderful people in my life who never questioned these traits, never judged or labeled, and simply accepted, there were several who took these traits to mean that they could take and take, while I continued to give. They placed their labels on what I was, and the result was a label that I accepted, a label that read "weak."
It wasn't until I was headed home to the ones who helped foster this soft heart within me and I was presented with a vivid picture of the girl I had once been that I had one of the most powerful revelations I've had in a long time.
You see, I cried partially because I couldn't remember whether these things I knew to be true about myself were a strength or a weakness. I couldn't remember why I ever placed value in my soft heart. And, that's when I finally got it.
When we begin to place value on how a quality is perceived or accepted, rather than on its merit alone, we begin to lose sight of what is real in our hearts. We let a jaded world define our reality, and we begin to see ourselves through a lens of cynicism. In order to stay true to who we are, we must stop letting labels others place on us define how we see ourselves and how we interact with the world. We must begin to believe what we know of ourselves, rather than what an outside world sees.
We must reclaim who we are from the grips of others and hold fast to the beautiful qualities that make us unique and set us apart—for what they mean to the individual to whom they belong, not for how they are seen or assessed by others.
For, even our strongest qualities lose significant power when we let another define or place a value upon them.